Reliably unpredictable director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Oceans Eleven, Traffic, The Limey) tries his hand at a rarely attempted genre: the disease disaster pic.
Soderbergh directs Contagion with the stern unspeculative approach of a politician sticking to the line on a tricky issue: no bombast, no spectacle, no flamboyant movements. Instead, carefully guarded responses to complicated situations.
The film attempts to realistically depict the madness, confusion, death, despair and blood-eyed panic that would ensue if a new super disease spread across the globe like wildfire. It attempts to second-guess how people — particularly authorities and vested interests — would respond, the channels through which they would argue and bicker and most importantly (for Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) how the situation would become politicised.
Soderbergh and Burns care about the problem of their eponymous contagion — where it came from, how treatment could be distributed, which round tables would make the big calls, etc — much more than the poor sods who become infected, their lips turned parched and grey, their complexion like Marilyn Manson’s after a bender and a blood transfusion.
This approach provides the film an interesting vantage point and a cold, dead heart.
Grieving husband and protective father Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is the closest the film has to a protagonist, but the fractured storyline makes it clear early on that anybody can die at any moment.
A huge A list cast do a good job pretending not be famous. Damon is particularly resonant, neatly emitting the vibes of a cautious parent whose control over tragic situations has escalated well beyond his reach, without over accentuating the terribleness of his character’s predicament. The remaining cast includes Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, whose character is pried open in more ways than one.
Contagion regularly reminds us it is both coldly contemporary and based in a coldly contemporary world, from the steely look of its cinematography (shot by Soderbergh) to splashes of web 2.0 and global connectivity noncommittally strewn throughout the story. There’s the power of a blogger to expose official secrets, some mentions of Twitter and Youtube, depictions of news and disease trotting the globe in minutes, etcetera.
In its determination not to pander to audience expectations, the film carries a whiff of Aleksandr Mindadze’s Chernobyl-set Innocent Saturday, which took the experiment to extremes. A disaster loomed in the background while the characters did little other than drink, dance and argue, the cameras perched at intoxicatingly close proximity. This created the means for an intriguing intellectual exercise and an infuriating experience for the audience.
In some ways Contagion is a daring film: no three act structure, no anchor performance, no sentimental resolutions and plenty of compelling moments. In others it emits a deathly waft of bland, sometimes plain bad writing, particularly in a structural sense. The narrative’s order of events places inordinate weight on where the story-springboard disease came from, for example, when that was never even remotely the most interesting question.
If taken as an extremely long introduction to a work that was never finished, Contagion plays very well. It’s a tense, nail chewing, intelligently configured opening act. But where’s the rest of the film?
Contagion’s Australian theatrical release date: October 20, 2011.